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Fani Willis, the Atlanta DA who's charging Trump, is no stranger to high-stakes cases

Fulton County Georgia District Attorney Fani Willis is photographed in her office in Atlanta on Jan. 4, 2022.
Ben Gray
Fulton County Georgia District Attorney Fani Willis is photographed in her office in Atlanta on Jan. 4, 2022.

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ATLANTA — A few months before Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in Georgia, Fani Willis claimed an election victory of her own.

Willis had unseated her old boss to become the first woman elected district attorney in Fulton County, which is home to Atlanta.

"My career has taught me, no matter the political pressure, just do what's right," Willis pledged as she took office. "And no matter if you were at the state Capitol or the slums, you will be held accountable if you commit a crime in my community."

Now, Willis is helming a criminal investigation that has targeted a former president.

Willis is no stranger to high-stakes cases. She first made her name prosecuting an Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal, winning 11 convictions.

"You know, listen, man: She dives right into the deep end," says attorney Clint Rucker.

Rucker, who was her co-prosecutor back then, says the high visibility and controversy the case inflamed prepared her for this moment. Willis has been condemned by Trump and has faced threats.

"If you've gotten one shot when you go into the doctor, you know what it feels like to take a shot," he says. "So if you have to take two or three more, you can handle it."

Willis has also become known for her tendency to wield Georgia's tough laws around Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations, or RICO, to prosecute sprawling criminal cases, like the cheating scandal. Right now, she's also in the middle of a RICO gang case involving the rapper Young Thug.

In another high-profile case, Willis is seeking the death penalty and hate crime enhancements against the shooter who allegedly killed eight people in Atlanta-area spas in 2021, including six Asian women.

Still, Willis has made some mistakes. Last year, she hosted a political fundraiser for the political opponent of one of the so-called fake electors her investigation was targeting. A judge called it a "what-are-you-thinking moment" and disqualified Willis' office from prosecuting him.

"She's learning to be more comfortable in that driver's seat," Rucker says. "Every now and then, you know, you may get a little close to the edge, and hopefully you've got an alarm that goes beep, beep, beep, beep, beep to tell you to bring it back to the center. And I think she will."

Norm Eisen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served as special counsel during Trump's first impeachment, says Willis may be better positioned than most to prosecute the former president.

Not only do the crimes she's charged him with tightly match specific Georgia laws, Eisen also thinks Willis may be more free than the Justice Department to charge a former president.

"She's not in D.C." he says. "She's not a part of the Biden administration. She has more distance."

Don Samuel, an Atlanta defense attorney representing the Georgia legislature in the proceedings, told NPR in an interview last July that convictions are far from a sure bet, and meanwhile the case is sponging resources from a district attorney's office already backlogged with violent crime cases.

"When you take one case and say this is going to dominate our judicial system for weeks or months or a year, it's just a political decision she needs to make," he says. "Is it worth it?"

Willis has clearly decided that it is.

Copyright 2023 90.1 WABE

Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.